Adventures in Feminist Film-watching: Where are the strong women?

SPOILERS for Iron Man 2, The Gentlemen and Extraction.

By Patrick McTague.
Edited by Jessica Sutton.

Since 16 March, many nations have been locked down around the world and Netflix’s stock has risen nearly 50% in a month (from $298.84 to $439.17). This reflects how many people are spending their forced home time watching movies and TV, myself included. And while the film industry is slowly being dragged into the 21st century when it comes to representation, there are many filmmakers who are trying to get away with a fast one. Some filmmakers trick us into thinking that women are being represented in films starring men, made by men, and stereotypically “for men”, by including one or two “badass” women (strong women who assert themselves amongst men and/or have impressive action scenes). Making a woman supposedly “one of the coolest characters in the movie” is a great distraction for not addressing the fact that she had little to no effect on the plot and/or was nothing more than a plot device to motivate men, the “real” characters.

I recently watched The Gentlemen by Guy Ritchie, notable on one hand as a return to his English gangster roots, and overall a high-quality Guy Ritchie film. On the other hand, I note that there is one female character in the background on the cover, just as she is decidedly in the background of the film. This “badass” woman is the wife of one of the main characters, runs a female only auto-shop, and suffers no fools. She is portrayed as a strong woman who doesn’t play second fiddle in her life, even to her drug kingpin gangster husband.

However, she goes on to have no significant part in the movie until the climax, when one of the antagonists first tries to take her hostage, then, after she kills his two associates, attempts to rape her, before being saved by her husband. The film takes their only strong female character and uses her as a prop to motivate part of her husband’s revenge. Please note that I said part of his revenge, because her husband already has plenty of cause for revenge due to a betrayal. The only thing this attempted rape scene added to the film was an appalling and unnecessary display of male dominance over women. This scene seems aimed at reminding us that although she is a “badass”, she is still “helpless compared to big, strong men”. Furthermore, if you completely removed this scene, or even her entire character, from the movie, there would be no significant change. This tells us exactly what representation means in this film, it is a cheap shortcut to placate anyone who might ask the eternal question: “where are the women?”

Watching The Gentlemen got me thinking about where I had seen this type of treatment of women in film before. It rang multiple bells for me, one of which being in relation to Black Widow in Iron Man 2. The introduction of an iconic Marvel character, the first female hero in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU), was reduced to being an attractive object for most of the movie, subject to one impressive action scene during the climax, some hacking, and providing information to the titular character. Unlike the “strong woman” in The Gentlemen, Black Widow actually influences the plot by freeing the iron man suit worn by the hero’s friend from the villain’s AI program. However, it’s arguable that this is not a significant influence as this could have been completed by Iron Man’s AI, Jarvis, and the rest of the plot would have stayed the exact same. The writers seemingly shoe-horned in a reason to give Black Widow a fight scene without making her an integral part of the story. Once again strong female representation is reduced to a spectacle rather than a fully formed character.

Unlike in The Gentlemen, there are at least two female characters of note in Iron Man 2. The second is Pepper Potts whose character arc includes: being promoted from Tony Stark’s PA to CEO of his company, being a damsel in distress for Tony to save when we first meet the villain, being the CEO, making “important calls”, then being a damsel in distress for Tony to save at the end of the climax where they finally kiss. Again, a character with no character development and no real effect on the plot other than being motivation for the male hero.

I decided to turn my attention back to more recent movies, hoping that The Gentlemen was a once-off aberration and not the rule for movies these days. I most recently watch Extraction, the new Russo brothers’ movie which is currently dominating Netflix and trending third in New Zealand on Netflix as I write this. By all accounts it is a very good action thriller that is fun to watch if you enjoy the genre. It also has one of the most subtle cases of this type of poor female representation.

The one female character goes long stretches without being onscreen, but at least does have a major impact on the plot in the end (literally during the climax). So many might argue that she is a strong female character who has an important role to play and doesn’t fall into the category of other women I have written about today. And I partially agree. However, while she does impact the plot in the end, she also has no motivation of her own and therefore is still not a fully formed character. Her entire motivation is to help the main character achieve his goal. As a counterpoint, one male character, Gasper, is in the film for approximately 10 minutes. In that time, we get some of his backstory, we get his current motivation, he betrays the main character, and he is killed. In that 10 minutes, we get more character development than we do for the only female character, who is in the entire movie.

It’s easy to get lost in easy watching and to ignore the inequality in representation that most movies display, especially when that inequality is more subtle. It’s easy to point to one or two female characters in a film and say, “there’s the representation”, especially when they’re considered “badass”.

It’s a lot harder to look at a movie and ask questions of the characters that are not answered by the mere presence of a female character. What are her motivations? What has she done that meaningfully affects the plot? Why is she the only woman with more than a couple of lines in this movie? Why have the innocent victims been mostly women (in the style of Joker)? But only when we start to ask these questions, do we start to appreciate what representation truly means in the media we consume.

Are we happy playing along with cheap ploys meant to stop these questions being answered? Or do we want to see real representation? Do we want actresses to be able to play, and women to be able to look up to, fully formed female characters in male-dominated movies? Or even better, do we want to throw away male-dominated movies, and make movies where everyone is represented? This isn’t an issue faced only by white women, this affects people of colour, the LGBTQIA+ community, and any other demographics that aren’t white men. Fighting for equal representation in media for women, means fighting for equal representation for all people. In the meantime, I will be looking for some more satisfying media to enjoy during lockdown. I encourage you to join me in blotting out memories of the films in this article with some female-directed masterpieces, where we get to see some real strong women represented.

Photo by Zhang H on Unsplash

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